Inspirational, exploitative, neither?

March 18, 2011

Just watched Britain’s Missing Top Model on TVNZ’s new youth-orientated channel called U.

I stumbled across the show while channel surfing and left it on for a few moments expecting to be at the worst disgusted and at best disappointed. Turns out I watched the whole show without feeling either. I was surprised at how well the show was edited and how effectively it opens a window into a world seldom seen, particularly in the able-bodied mainstream world.

It indirectly tells the girls’ stories with just the right amount of sensitivity so as to not come across as condescending. This said, since I have no real firsthand experience of disability is my judgement fair or even valid, and how different is it from someone who has experience with disability or is disabled? Coming to think of it, I suspect this is a major theme throughout the show itself, transcending the contestants to include the judges, guests and photographers.

It’s refreshing to watch a show like this tackle complex issues like identity, normality and femininity. I’m not a particular fan of the original franchise (though I’m not the target market) but have seen enough to compare them with Britain’s Missing Top Model. It’s interesting that a spinoff is better than the original, something quite unusual, internet memes excluded. If subsequent episodes follow the same tack as the first episode it’s sure to be worth watching.

Complexity within the show aside, it has an added dimension of making the viewer (well myself at least) question and evaluate my existing beliefs and prejudices, if even for a moment. I found myself grappling with similar issues raised in the show. Should the winner be visibly disabled? Does it matter? Why does it matter? Should it matter? The judges deal with these very questions. It’s refreshing, though demanding, to watch television that engages with you in a more dynamic and active way.

All this said, I am left with a nagging question: how telling is it that there is not a single visibly disabled person in any other reality competition show, and would it even be possible for a show’s producers to include a disabled person in a ‘normal’ show without stoking the accusatory fire of being branded with exploiting shock value and tokenism? I have many questions, but fewer answers.

The show’s Friday evening slot means many of the channel’s target market are out doing their thing. I believe it repeats around midday on Saturdays which is a suitable slot for hangover viewing, though the content might be a bit amiss because of this. Google tells me the show’s almost three years old already so I’m way behind in this commentary. Well it’s new to me, at least.

Side note: Melenie Parkes’ review makes some great points that differ from mine. She’s more scathing of the show. Perhaps I’m being far too charitable to a show that’s just as exploitative and voyeuristic as any other reality TV show, if not more so.

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